Back in Hollywood's heyday, MGM was known for its lavish musicals and Universal cornered the market on horror movies. The gangster film, however, belonged almost exclusively to Warner Bros, which, over the course of a decade, transformed a fledgling genre into an art form. No other studio cranked out a grittier or more violent product or told topical tales ripped from the day's headlines with such insight and vigor. Tough-talking wiseguys, their sassy and brassy molls, and a squadron of square-jawed cops populate these taut, pulsating pictures that prove - despite prologues and epilogues to the contrary - that crime does pay, at least for a while, and the ruthless, doomed thugs who terrorize society and break the law with brazen abandon harbor enough twisted mental afflictions to make Dr. Freud salivate with glee. Any moralizing is kept to a minimum, and romance strictly falls in the rock-'em-sock-'em caveman category. In this barbaric world, rules are simple, the code is clear, and retribution (or revenge) is swift...and painful. Brisk, hard, and endlessly entertaining, the films comprising the Warner gangster canon stand as timeless salutes to a bygone age and undisputed cinema classics.
Though several box sets could be culled from the Warner gangster vault, this initial "ultimate" offering contains four of the studio's most iconic mob titles - 'Little Caesar,' 'The Public Enemy,' 'The Petrified Forest,' and 'White Heat.' The first three films put their respective leading men - Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart - on the cinematic map, launching careers of astonishing duration and versatility, while the final movie puts a blistering - and literally explosive - exclamation point on an era and style that would often be imitated, but never matched. All, however, are distinctly Warner and share common themes and a pugnacious attitude of drive and desperation that's both fascinating and thrilling. Though they live in infamy on celluloid, Rico Bandelo, Tom Powers, Duke Mantee, and Cody Jarrett are fictional figures, yet their all-American stories are as disturbing as those of any real-life outlaw, and a vital cog in the evolution of our culture.
'Little Caesar' (1931)
As cuddly as a tarantula and with a face only a mother could love, Edward G. Robinson is perhaps the most unlikely star in Hollywood history. Yet in Robinson's rare case, talent eclipsed looks in the eyes of the usually fickle public, and his menacing, cigar-chomping portrayal of mobster Caesar Enrico Bandelo mesmerized moviegoers and galvanized the burgeoning gangster genre. 'Little Caesar,' based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, chronicles the rise and fall of an ambitious small-time hood (modeled loosely on Al Capone) whose all-consuming hunger for power and unquenchable thirst for celebrity both propel his ascendancy and speed his destruction. Mervyn LeRoy's no-nonsense film is also a searing study of the inner-workings and hierarchical structure of organized crime, and depicts just how difficult it is to wriggle free from the syndicate's strangulating grip.
One of the best early talkies, 'Little Caesar' is somewhat hindered by the constraints of rudimentary sound technology, but a striking series of dissolves during the pivotal heist sequence and some other flashes of visual artistry nicely balance the picture, which flaunts all the elements of Warner's distinctive early-1930s filmmaking style - swift pacing, rapid-fire dialogue, socially relevant themes, and a no-frills production design. And while the script follows what would become the typical gangster film blueprint, an air of Greek tragedy hangs over the proceedings, as well as an undercurrent of latent homosexuality, as Rico's intense feelings for his long-standing buddy (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) alter the trajectory of both their careers.
Of course, without Robinson in the lead role, it's doubtful 'Little Caesar' would wield such enormous impact. (It's interesting to note producer Hal B. Wallis originally wanted to cast an unknown actor named Clark Gable in the title role, but studio chief Jack L. Warner rejected him, saying Gable's ears were too big and "stuck out like a couple of wind socks.") His nasal vocal quality and bulldog face enhance the character's ruthless nature, yet that same lack of physical attractiveness sparks eventual pity for Rico and lends him an everyman quality that helps bring the high-flying tale down to earth. Though Robinson would go on to land a host of colorful parts, the ghost of Rico Bandelo would forever haunt him, just as his reading of the film's famous last line - "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" - would rightfully cement his place in the annals of cinema history. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
'The Public Enemy' (1931)
Released a mere three months following 'Little Caesar,' William A. Wellman's 'The Public Enemy' paints a more full-bodied portrait of a career criminal, showing how economic hardship, lack of education, and, most importantly, the influences of a corrupt society lead innocent boys astray. It also more specifically weaves Prohibition into its plot, silently condemning it as the root of gangland violence, and strives to downplay the glamorous aspects of mob life that blinded starry-eyed contemporary audiences to the harsh realities of a lawless existence.
While some sluggish stretches somewhat dull its impact, 'The Public Enemy' remains a damn good motion picture packed with memorable images and a seething brutality that set it apart from its sister films. It also made 32-year-old James Cagney a household name. Originally cast as Tom Powers' sidekick, Matt, Cagney switched roles with actor Edward Woods just prior to the start of shooting at the behest of Wellman, who recognized Cagney's magnetism and ferocity. The rest, as they say, is history, and whether Cagney is pumping a rival full of lead, dazedly muttering "I ain't so tough" as he collapses in a gutter, or, in the film's most iconic moment, smashing a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face in a shocking fit of pique, he's a riveting screen presence. Cagney, too, would have trouble escaping future gangster roles, but after a period of rebellion, he would eventually embrace the persona.
'The Public Enemy' charts Tom's rise through the underworld ranks, which, much like the mobsters in 'GoodFellas,' begins when he's a kid doing odd jobs for the local big shot, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). Once they mature, Tom and Matt join a high-level bootlegging operation run by Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), which considerably inflates both their social standing and egos, until vicious gangland battles bring both men down. Joan Blondell as a heart-of-gold floozie who loves Woods and up-and-coming sexpot Jean Harlow as a society dame of questionable breeding who dallies with Cagney add appropriate spice to the proceedings and help humanize the film's anti-heroes. Wellman's tough-as-nails direction keeps the story grounded, and the final image remains as shocking and gruesome today as it surely must have seemed 82 years ago. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
'The Petrified Forest' (1936)
Poetic language and lofty ideas don't usually find their way into gangster pictures, but 'The Petrified Forest' is chock full of both — almost to the exclusion of the stylized gun violence and tough lingo that define the genre. More an examination of man's tortured spirit than a peek inside his sadistic soul, this taut, emotionally affecting film is perhaps best remembered for the electrifying, star-making performance of Humphrey Bogart as the outlaw Duke Mantee. But the lyrical prose of Robert Sherwood, whose hit play inspired the film, deserves equal praise, and lifts this atypical mob film above others in its class.
Set in a dilapidated diner-cum-gas station in the heart of the Arizona desert, 'The Petrified Forest' brings together an intriguing collection of disillusioned misfits who bare their souls while being held captive by the murderous Mantee. Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a penniless drifter with "uncertain" plans, rues his wasted life and thwarted literary potential, and now wanders the American countryside searching for "something worth living for...or dying for." His quest for meaning ends in a most unlikely spot when he encounters the wide-eyed Gabby Maple (Bette Davis), daughter of the diner's proprietor, who fantasizes about escaping the desolate Southwest and studying painting in Paris. Alan appreciates Gabby's spirit and vitality, while she's attracted to his intellect and sensitivity — a refreshing change from the doltish Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran), a brawny former football hero who fancies her.
When Mantee, who strikingly resembles John Dillinger, commandeers the diner, Squier impulsively alters his life insurance policy and names Gabby the beneficiary. He then makes Mantee promise to kill him, in the hope Gabby will use the inheritance to pursue her dream and develop her talent. Although the two men couldn't possess more divergent personalities, Alan and Mantee develop a kinship born of their fatalistic attitudes and "obsolete" nature — Mantee is a relic of the Roaring '20s, while Squier evokes the Lost Generation. Both feel they no longer fit into the world, and ironically make a last stand in a mystical wasteland where wood turns to stone.
Thanks to the literate adaptation by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, and sensitive direction by Archie Mayo, 'The Petrified Forest' possesses far more depth than the formulaic menace-to-society, crime-doesn't-pay gangster flicks that flooded theaters throughout the 1930s. Although the climactic shootout flaunts all the trademark touches of Warner's best mob efforts, the exchange of ideas remains the film's raison d'etre, and it admirably adheres to the play's core elements, even while whittling down the story to a lean 82 minutes.
Both Bogart and Howard created their respective roles on Broadway, yet when Jack Warner suggested Edward G. Robinson play Mantee in the movie version, Howard balked, and refused to come to Hollywood unless Bogart was cast. Warner acquiesced, and within a few years, Bogart became the studio's biggest star. His smoldering presence here commands attention, yet the actor divorces himself from the archetypal portrayals of Cagney and Robinson by turning his intensity inward and adding a glimmer of compassion that gives his performance marvelous dimension and resonance. Howard is equally fine, and though his character strongly resembles the weak-willed Ashley Wilkes, his conviction carries the day and makes us admire Alan Squier even if we can't wholly understand his suicidal actions. He and Davis (who worked together previously on the classic Of Human Bondage) share a lovely rapport, and their relationship develops believably despite the compressed timeframe. Davis embraces her ingénue character, imbuing Gabby with just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and girlish sincerity. The result is a simple yet emotional performance that's far different from the bulk of Davis' best-known and most acclaimed portrayals.
Although 'The Petrified Forest' is very much a film of its time (and can't totally escape a dated aura), its themes and performances still resonate, and turn this "gangster" movie into a multi-layered, involving cinematic experience. Rating: 4 stars.
'White Heat' (1949)
Who says you can't go home again? Not only did James Cagney return to the studio that made him a star after a multi-year hiatus, he also returned to the type of role that made him a star after almost a decade of shunning similar parts. 'White Heat' brings the Cagney-Warner Bros-gangster cycle full circle, as it recalls with relish the rough-and-tumble mob pictures of yore, yet builds upon them by adding more violence, more psychological shadings, and a heightened sense of toughness to satisfy more savvy and mature audiences. Bold, brassy, and uncompromising, 'White Heat' blazes across the screen, bringing the genre to its apex while bidding the classic structure a fond and appropriately incendiary farewell.
Cody Jarrett is Tom Powers on steroids, an unrepenting, cynical, sadistic gangster whose only redeeming quality is his pathological devotion to his equally crooked, hard-as-nails mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma Jarrett, based on the legendary Ma Barker, protects her son at all costs, keeping tabs on his two-timing wife (Virginia Mayo) and keeping his gang in line while Cody lays low in prison, serving time for a minor charge in order to avoid getting fingered for a big one. While in the slammer, Cody is befriended by undercover T-man Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), who hopes to infiltrate Jarrett's brood and bring them to justice.
Psychopathic to the core, plagued by crippling headaches, saddled with an Oedipus complex, and shockingly ruthless, Jarrett is a dream role, and Cagney plays it to the hilt, snarling, cackling, smirking, and strutting his way to the memorable chemical plant finale and that oft-quoted, orgiastic exultation, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" Instead of smashing a grapefruit in Mayo's face, Cagney kicks a chair out from under her, and in arguably the film's most memorable scene, the actor goes certifiably berserk when he learns some disturbing news in the prison mess hall. Dynamo doesn't begin to describe Cagney in this once-in-a-lifetime role; he's more of a whirling dervish, literally tearing up the screen, and it takes several massive explosions to snuff him out.
Director Raoul Walsh made his name crafting tough, macho films, and 'White Heat' just may well be his masterpiece. Breathlessly paced, lean and mean, the movie rivets attention from the opening frames, grabbing us by the throat and never letting go. The violence may be excessive by 1940s standards (and over the top by any standards), but the psychological elements lend the story welcome weight, humanizing Cody and - amazingly - engendering a modicum of sympathy for a cold-blooded killer.
The last of the great gangster pictures before the Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola renaissance in the early 1970s, 'White Heat' ends a classic period in film history with a bang, not a whimper. It's the ultimate gangster offering in what truly is the ultimate gangster collection. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Ultimate Gangsters Collection Classics' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a sturdy box with raised lettering. A Blu-ray case that snugly holds all four high-def discs plus a standard-def DVD lies inside, as well as a slickly produced, lavishly illustrated 32-page hardcover volume that provides a perfunctory history of the classic gangster genre and separate analyses of the quartet of movies comprising this collection. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
All of the transfers in this collection are top-notch and greatly improve upon their respective DVD counterparts. Crisp yet natural, and sporting marvelous contrast levels that produce a palpable sense of depth, the images of all four films will surely satisfy the most discriminating classic film aficionado. Some age-related imperfections do remain - it's impossible to erase every blemish on 80-year-old movies - but Warner has painstakingly touched up the pictures to the highest degree possible without destroying the integrity of the original specimens.
Blacks across the board are rich and inky, while terrific gray scale variance highlights details well, such as Rico's polka dot shirt and speckled bow tie in 'Little Caesar.' The white fur trim that adorns outfits worn by Jean Harlow and Mae Clarke in 'The Public Enemy' is bright, sharp, and well defined, and intricate patterns resist shimmering. Background elements are wonderfully sharp, and fabrics, such as wool suits and satin gowns, exude a marvelous sense of texture. Close-ups wield plenty of impact, too, and grain levels haven't been compromised, so each movie maintains the warm feel of celluloid.
'Little Caesar' is the oldest film in the bunch, so it's not surprising it brandishes the most print defects. Though most marks and scratches have been removed, a few nagging specks remain, along with some faint vertical lines that unfortunately disrupt a few key scenes, such as Rico's final confrontation with Joe. Some soft stretches and brief moments of excessive grain crop up here and there, but such anomalies are to be expected when dealing with films from the early 1930s. 'The Public Enemy' is much cleaner, but grain levels are slightly higher. Still, the overall clarity and vitality that burst from almost every frame - especially during the climactic rain sequence - are quite remarkable, and Cagney's menacing close-ups continue to pack quite a wallop.
Grain and softness variations are present on 'The Petrified Forest' as well, but they're relatively minor, and the picture is free of any grit or marks, making it a huge step up from the previous ragged DVD. The high degree of sharpness, however, makes the painted backdrops more noticeable now than ever before, but also lends the expansive desert shots more depth. As the most recent film in this collection, 'White Heat' understandably looks the best, sporting a lush smoothness even during harshly lit scenes that draws the viewer deep into Cody's twisted world. Contrast here is exceptionally good, undoubtedly thanks to the noir influences that permeate the picture. One highly grainy shot is momentarily jarring, but no more shocking than any of Cody's sadistic acts of violence.
Minor quibbling aside, these are all terrific transfers that mirror the magnetism of the on-screen mobsters, and as such, should blow most viewers away. Even if you already own the DVDs of these films, a double dip is recommended and encouraged.
'Little Caesar' - 4 stars
'The Public Enemy' - 4.5 stars
'The Petrified Forest' - 4.5 stars
'White Heat' - 4.5 stars
DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks grace all four films, and the remastered sound is quite impressive. Of course, a bit of hiss afflicts 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy,' largely due to the primitive equipment employed during the early years of talking pictures, but any pops and crackles have been meticulously erased, leaving marvelously clean tracks that stand up well today. The iconic sonic accents of gangster films - gunfire, screeching tires, blaring sirens, and shattering glass - are all crisp and distinct, and the ever-present desert wind in 'The Petrified Forest' adds subtle atmosphere to the on-screen action.
The rapid-fire dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend in all the movies (however a bit of distortion muddies a couple of conversations in 'The Public Enemy'), and though all the audio is anchored up front, there's enough fidelity to produce a pleasing soundscape. Dynamic range is somewhat limited, and a slight tinny quality colors the music in the three 1930s films, but considering their advanced age such deficiencies are to be expected.
Not surprisingly, the best sounding film is also the most recent - 'White Heat.' The highly active track is well mixed, allowing all the elements - dialogue, effects, music - to nicely coexist. Max Steiner's frenetic, string-laden score possesses wonderful presence and tonal depth, and the climactic series of explosions produce solid rumbles, even in mono. Subtleties and background noises are also more pronounced here, and the artillery sounds more powerful and deadly as well.
Though these tracks won't test the limits of your sound system, they complement their respective films well, and only minimally call attention to their vintage nature. Once again, Warner has taken great care with its classics collection, and Golden Age aficionados owe the studio their appreciation.
Rating for all four films: 4 stars.
All four films were originally released in a DVD box set (along with 'The Roaring Twenties' and 'Angels With Dirty Faces,' which sadly do not make appearances here) and each disc included a wealth of fascinating supplements, all of which have been ported over to their respective Blu-ray counterparts. The material includes commentaries, featurettes, and plenty of vintage goodies from the Warner vaults. There's also a bonus DVD disc that contains additional material that's well worth checking out.
'The Public Enemy'
'The Petrified Forest'
Few styles of film are as inherently American as the gangster genre, and no studio produced better (or more) mob movies than Warner Bros. This ultimate collection salutes the all-time classic crime pictures and the trio of stars that defined them - Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart - and treats them with the care and reverence they deserve. 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy' blazed the trail, 'The Petrified Forest' refined the form, and 'White Heat' took the genre to the nth degree as it said a blistering and bittersweet goodbye to the golden age of Hollywood heavies. Though other noteworthy gangster films merit mention, this quartet holds a special place in cinema history and their grouping here provides a stunning look at a vital era, and hopefully signals the promise of more classic gangster releases on Blu-ray in the future. Superior transfers, fantastic supplements (the feature-length documentary alone is worth the price of the set), and classy packaging heighten the allure of this first-class collection that truly deserves the "ultimate" moniker. For gangster lovers, it is indeed the top of the world, and a slam-dunk must own.